Everyone (or at least most Catholics) know that popes serve until death. We also know from history that serving until death doesn’t always mean until natural death; a number of popes in earlier times met their deaths at the hands of others.
But not until I read Jon M. Sweeney’s The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death and Salvation, had I known the story of Peter Morrone, the man who became Pope Celestine V in August 1294, and, within six months, resigned the papacy.
Although his book is meant to be historical and not fiction, Sweeney is a good story-teller and I was hooked as soon as I started reading.
Part of what makes the book so compelling is Morrone himself, clearly a holy man who had a great thirst for God. He understood the need to seek God in solitude and spent many years living the life of a hermit. During those years he was sought out by many for spiritual direction and wisdom, and ultimately, organized a community of brother hermits that grew “into dozens of communities with oratories all over central Italy.” At the age of 83, he moved further from those communities to enjoy greater solitude.
His one great mistake in life appears to have been accepting the papacy. From Sweeney’s description, it is hard to imagine someone less well-suited to the papacy, especially at a time when such turbulence and politics surrounded the election of a new pope. His time as pope was nothing short of disastrous, and it is no surprise he made the determination that he should step down. All of this – the story of Morrone’s life before becoming Pope Celestine V, how it turned out that this hermit monk became pope, his papacy, and his subsequent imprisonment – is a well-told tale.
Sweeney also does a marvelous job in the book of giving us a picture of the Church during the Middle Ages. He describes not only the papacy itself and the power of the church, but also what religion was to people of the time. Much less compelling for me was the end of the book and its speculation about whether Morrone was killed or died of natural causes in prison.
All in all a great read and I am grateful to Random House’s Image Books for sending me a copy for review.